Schweitzer Signs Main Budget Bill, Others to Follow

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Thursday signed the main budget bill that he hashed out with Republican leaders, getting closer to wrapping up action on all the Legislature’s work.

Schweitzer had taken his red pen to other portions of the spending plan after arguing that GOP leaders broke their deal by failing to deliver a few small pieces of the budget. But on Thursday, the Democrat signed the main budget bill, known as House Bill 2, without making any changes.

House Speaker Mike Milburn said he is pleased the governor signed a budget deal that the Republican leader believes makes good on a GOP promise to curtail spending.

The budget deal cuts spending of state tax money about 6 percent from the current two-year budget period to around $3.6 billion and funds government through June of 2013. Total spending including federal money for programs like Medicare and highway construction exceeds $9 billion.

A key part of the budget compromise restored spending of about $100 million in federal money for social service programs largely aimed at helping the poor and needy.

Schweitzer said he thinks the end deal is very close to what he proposed at the start of the session — minus a small pay increase for state employees that he had negotiated with labor unions and other details.

“They ultimately agreed to a budget that is pretty close to what we proposed,” Schweitzer said.

The governor has been taking his red pen to other companion bills to the budget, such as striking down transfers from various accounts to school funding. Schweitzer said he instead shore up the K-12 funding with a “supplemental appropriation” that the next Legislature must approve.

Montana is one of few states that held education funding steady through the recession.

“Unlike virtually every other state, we are not going to have a bunch of layoffs of teachers,” Schweitzer said. “We have some good things to report to the people of Montana.”

Milburn said he thinks it is a bad idea to fund education through a supplemental appropriation. The Republican plan brought in the needed money by transferring funds out of various accounts, such as for tourism promotion, a notion Schweitzer rejected.

“I would say that is irresponsible, because it puts the burden on the next Legislature and the next governor,” said Milburn, a rancher from Cascade. “We need to spend as we go, and that is definitely not doing that.”

The governor still has dozens of bills to act on, including a proposal to roll back environmental laws in the name of business development. Another pending proposal would require parental notification for teens seeking an abortion.

Schweitzer would not say Thursday how he will act on the bills. The last of the bills are due for the governor’s action by Saturday, or they will automatically become law without his signature.

Schweitzer hinted that he will probably allow the Republican business tax reduction to become law — although he made it clear again h thinks it is a bad idea compared to his original proposal that would have removed it entirely for most businesses while forcing the largest multi-million dollar companies to continue paying the full amount.

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